Year in Education 2017: A Q&A with David Gamberg, Anne Smith

As 2017 draws to a close, it’s time to reflect on the changes that took place at local schools during the year.

The Suffolk Times sat down with Anne Smith, superintendent of the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District, and David Gamberg, shared superintendent of the Southold and Greenport school districts, to discuss the past year, which included a focus on emotional wellness, agriculture programs and an increase in electives. Following are shortened versions of their responses.

Suffolk Times: Last year, we spoke a lot about new agricultural programs in the districts. Where are those projects now?

Anne Smith: Our high school agricultural program just became accredited through Future Farmers of America. This gives our students opportunities to participate in other activities and internships and get more access to agriculture-based experiences … We also added our first-ever summer garden club at Cutchogue East … We’ve been doing a lot of work with the Wellness Foundation on the South Fork, so last year we went to their conference and we’ve been able to get a grant at that conference. And then this slow food organization provided an additional grant, so we have two teachers now, at no cost to us, getting the curriculum training for their new nutrition curriculum.

David Gamberg: The scope and scale of the Greenport garden is much bigger than it had been. The greenhouse is now near completion in Southold. What that will do is bring what has been a focus largely at the elementary level here to the secondary school … In addition to that, we are just near the beginning having started using a $68,000 grant multi-district and we are working toward increasing the volume of produce that not only gets into the cafeteria, but also the awareness of the health benefits of farm fresh to school agricultural opportunities. We’re looking at building hydroponic systems in the schools.

ST: Have there been any changes to curriculum or programs for students?

DG: In Southold we have embarked on something called a senior seminar. The goal eventually is to prepare students not just for college and career, but for life in general as they think about their next step in life … [In Greenport] the STEAM class — science, technology, engineering, art and math — is a recent addition, which is probably technically in its first or second year. We basically expanded that so that it became more of an opportunity to work in the garden and to do other things … We are taking advantage of outdoor classroom learning opportunities … We’re having a number of students, as is Mattituck and some other districts as well, all capitalizing on this opportunity for kids to get into coding [through kidOYO].

AS: Last January, the students petitioned Mr. Petretti and the music department to start a Tri-M honor society … Every other year, we do a world language study abroad trip. This year [for the first time] we combined the world language club and the environmental science club and they went to the Galapagos … In June, we had the Project Fit kickoff. This year, as a result of that, we started a club, so now there’s an after-school project fit club at Cutchogue East … We started a pep band this year, an interact club and we just started a cooking club … The two big launch things this year were the World Languages — starting the Spanish in K-3, which is going so well. And kidOYO, that’s the other thing.

ST: What are some of the changes that took place this year with the faculty, administration and/or Board of Education?

DG: We had some replacements, some retirees, some new people join, but not additions per say. The main thing that we’re trying to do is sustain the shared services, the shared administrative staff …. The boards of education have been stable. We are working very carefully to make sure each district maintains its independence but benefits from shared professional development.

AS: We had our new business official come in last June, Kevin Coffey, which has really been going well. We also had the election with our board president becoming supervisor of Riverhead, so that’s a pretty big event. Not only having somebody leave the board who’s the president, but her accomplishing that is something we’re all proud of. Other new hirings were in the foreign language department … The new lunch program has new staff in there.

ST: Enrollment numbers have been declining in Southold and Mattituck, but not necessarily Greenport. Are there any conversations about consolidation or changes regarding that?

DG: There’s no conversation about consolidation. We just continue to look at shared services as a model that we think we can replicate. Where we can share opportunities for students, whether it’s in something like robotics, or a class offering in one district, that’s where we’re really aiming.

AS: So the enrollment has been declining gradually. We’ve just been sort of folding things in as people leave. Over the last six or seven years, we’ve probably not replaced 10 teachers. Or we’ve said to a teacher, we don’t really need so much social studies so can you get [another] certificate … The first impact will be on electives; it won’t be on core subjects. There will come a point where we have to prioritize what program that remains still meets a range of kids. You might have your numbers go down, but what you don’t want to see happen is your participation rate going down.

ST: I noticed a couple of districts have been focused on social and emotional wellness. What are some of the things your districts are doing in that regard?

DG: I think the best way to address the social-emotional needs before it becomes a crisis is to have on the ground, as local as it gets, support systems. What we do in some elementary classes is student-led class meetings. The senior seminar, by the way, is sort of designed so you have elementary, middle, high school. Each level has its own level of on-the-ground opportunities for students to listen to each other, to speak, to be heard, that’s not directly related to academic work.

AS: Social-emotional learning really is looking at how we, regardless of age, think of the concept of self-regulation and then practicing these character traits, such as kindness and respect. It really teaches us how, at different stages of development, children can really get better at their emotional health. We might be doing some breathing techniques at one point in the year. You might be doing how to keep your concentration, it might be how you stay organized and on top of things so you don’t create anxiety in your life. At the elementary school, we have the character education program.

ST: Have larger national conversations, such as suicide and immigration reform, been discussed in the districts this year?

DG: I’m not going to say there’s no effect, because we don’t live in a bubble. And so whatever national conversations or world events that are occurring, or potentially occurring, it definitely penetrates. Obviously in social studies classes there are conversations … I think the adults certainly are mindful of the larger world and they want children of all ages or students in high school to be aware of this and to have the kind of curiosity they should have with these issues … But day to day I can’t say I see anything overt that has changed.

AS: Those issues are all addressed at the state level and we get guidance from the state, so it’s not like we have to figure out what to do … You’re pretty well prepared for those higher level things that come up. However, if something is politically charged and we start to hear that kids are worried about this or that, then we circle the wagons and kind of get proactive … We’ve always done suicide prevention. Some of these social issues seem to cycle through depending on either television [or] social media. You try to stay on top of those things best you can and be as proactive as you can.

ST: How would you summarize 2017 and what are you looking forward to in 2018?

DG: I think in both Greenport and Southold, I’m very excited by what I see in the students and staff and facilities. I do think that there is a nexus between the kinds of environments we create that facilitate opportunities for learning in the real world … I want to see more and more hands-on learning that is purposeful. I want to see more of a function of the school that illustrates for our communities how valuable an asset it is moving into the future.

AS: Since we don’t do a January goal-setting, we think in school years, so looking ahead to the rest of this year is continuing to implement changes. There are two pretty significant changes we’ve made with the world languages and the coding … I will say we’ve had many conversations around issues regarding mental health, drug use [so] that’s a big study for us right now.

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Photo caption: David Gamberg and Anne Smith (Credit: Courtesy photo/Nicole Smith)